Helsinki Graffiti Subculture: Meanings of Control and Gender in the Aftermath of Zero Tolerance

Research output: Book/ReportDoctoral thesisCollection of Articles


This thesis by publication is an urban ethnographic study on the Helsinki graffiti subculture, consisting of this summary, and four peer-reviewed journal articles (Publications I – IV). The thesis asks what the meanings of control and gender in the Helsinki based graffiti subculture are. Graffiti is approached as a youth subculture that has a cultural tradition associated with the North American graffiti subculture in the 1970s, and which in the 1980s formed into a transnational youth subculture through a prolific spread of popular graffiti books and video documentary. The first graffiti pieces also appeared in the city of Helsinki in mid1980s, and quickly developed to a popular youth subculture.

The study explores meanings of control and gender in graffiti writing throughout the different societal reaction periods towards this activity. Amongst several Nordic cities, Helsinki exercised zero tolerance against graffiti in 1998 – 2008 with the “Stop töhryille” -project. During zero tolerance legal graffiti was prohibited, and graffiti as an art form was censured in several ways. An increased crime prevention on graffiti, and a municipal investment in private security company marginalized graffiti writers’ rights to city space. From 2009 onwards Helsinki became more liberal towards graffiti and street art, fostering the integration of these art forms in a public urban culture through legal art projects, public exhibitions, and by offering legal walls for graffiti writers and street artists. In the aftermath of zero tolerance, street art has become a recognized art form on the streets of Helsinki. While the two artforms are distinguished different, they share common features in the urban space. Moreover, graffiti is often ‘masculinized’ and street art ‘femininized’, both in the public and subcultural discourses, which subsequently affects the two artforms’ meaning and subcultural recognition.

This thesis is contextualized with a growing interdisciplinary field known as graffiti and street art research (GSAR), whilst cultural criminology provides a theoretical perspective for this research, with a strong emphasis on gendered experiences of control. It seeks to incorporate feminist philosophy in the work of cultural criminology’s. The research is based in the author’s long-term ethnographic edgework in the Helsinki graffiti subculture. The methodological approach thus includes active participatory observation in the subculture and the research data consists of the author’s field diary conducted in 2011 – 2019 and 26 recorded interviews with fifteen women and with eleven men aged 18 – 43 the years 2014 and 2019. Additional ethnographic material consists of thousands of photographs taken from the field, 24 court decisions on graffiti cases at Helsinki Court of Appeal in 2000 – 2018, a collection of national mass media news on graffiti, anti-graffiti material, police reports on graffiti vandalism, Finnish graffiti magazines and video documentaries, social media updates related to graffiti, as well the author’s own memorial notes on graffiti subculture.

The analysis presents Helsinki graffiti subculture as a male-dominated subculture and recognizes the dominating image of graffiti as a hetero-masculine endeavor, whilst marginalizing other gender performativities in subcultural storytelling, and in the forms of subcultural archiving. Moreover, the analysis confirms that only males are held responsible for graffiti vandalism at presented court cases, and that most court cases are performed within the period of zero tolerance, while they diminish the post-zero tolerance period. The period of zero tolerance is dominating the subcultural narrative of Helsinki graffiti. The analysis shows how zero tolerance policy and guard surveillance have subsequently toughening the graffiti writing milieu, resulting into expressions of rage and integrating homophobic discourses within the subculture. However, the study recognizes a significant increase in active female participants, especially in the post-zero tolerance era, and identifies street art as a significant feature of a contemporary feminist movement in Helsinki graffiti. The study moreover problematizes graffiti as a disembodied practice, as the graffiti writing body is chiefly hiding from a mundane audience and crime control when painting illegally, and thus complicates the identification of the subcultures diverse gender performances. Subsequently, it recognizes changing dynamics of control and gender performances in graffiti subculture and offers a shared analytic framework for both cultural criminology and feminist philosophy.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationTampere
PublisherTampere University
ISBN (Electronic)978-952-03-1914-4
ISBN (Print)978-952-03-1913-7
Publication statusPublished - 2021
Publication typeG5 Doctoral dissertation (articles)

Publication series

NameTampere University Dissertations - Tampereen yliopiston väitöskirjat
PublisherTampere University
ISSN (Print)2489-9860
ISSN (Electronic)2490-0028


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